Systems practice

, Volume 6, Issue 6, pp 583–611

Some difficulties of ecological thinking, considered from a critical systems perspective: A plea for critical holism

  • Werner Ulrich


We probably have simplified matters too much. We tend to talk about systems thinking and practice as if we knew what they are. The fashionable call for “holistic” or “systems” thinking in ecological issues provides a major example. This much is certain: the quest for comprehensiveness, although it represents an epistemologically necessary idea, is not realizable. If we assume that it is realizable, the critical idea underlying the quest will be perverted into its opposite, i.e., into a false pretension to superior knowledge and understanding—a danger of which the environmental movement does not always appear to be sufficiently aware. My question, therefore, is this: How can we deal critically with the fact that our thinking, and hence our knowledge, designs, and actions, cannot possibly be comprehensive, in the sense that we never “comprehend” all that ought to be understood before we pass to judgment and action? What consequences does this fact imply for a critical systems approach to ecological concerns and, ultimately, for our concepts of rationality in general?

Key words

ecological thinking holism critical holism critical systems thinking critical systems heuristics boundary judgments 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Werner Ulrich
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of FribourgFribourg
  2. 2.Department of Public Health & Social Services of the Canton of BerneOffice of Evaluation ResearchBerneSwitzerland
  3. 3.Gesundheits- und Fürsorgedirektion des Kantons BernAmt für wissenschaftliche AuswertungBerneSwitzerland

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